Calvin Jones was never 100 percent sure if he did the right thing, even looking back 20 years later on his decision to leave Nebraska early and declare for the NFL draft.
Two specific moments do stick out to the I-back who could have stayed and possibly made a run at Mike Rozier’s school rushing record.
The first moment of true regret …
“What happened to me, I left early and they come back and they win Coach Osborne that first national championship (in 1994), with my recruiting class,” Jones said. “And I’m like, ‘Man, what did you do?’ And then they win another.”
And the first moment of contentment?
“It was after Super Bowl XXXI with the Packers (in 1997), when I took my uniform off in the locker room at the Superdome, and that’s when I was finally at peace with it,” Jones said. “So that ate at me for a couple years there.”
Jones knows a little bit about what Ameer Abdullah went through before the Nebraska I-back announced Thursday that he would return for his senior season in 2014. Some things have been put in place for underclassmen in the last 20 years, but none that could really make the decision any easier for a college kid feeling pulls from all directions.
Jones called the decision another step up for athletes — with more at stake — from picking their college three or four years before.
“The NFL, that’s a life-changing decision in so many ways,” said Jones, drafted in the third round by the Los Angeles Raiders in 1994. “As a college student, you like that environment, you’re familiar with that scene, so you like the known because you fear the unknown.
“So during this time it’s a constant tug of war. You’re making sure, ‘Did I look here? Did I do this?’ Then you think you have a decision and then you go back and forth again.”
Five Husker I-backs have declared for the NFL after their junior seasons. Derek Brown was the first in 1993. Jones had the luxury of watching Brown go through the process, and studying his rookie year with New Orleans, and then tried to use his own experience to help counsel Ahman Green a few years later.
Brown said you take into account your love for NU and its fans, and the relationship you have built with coaches and teammates. That has to be weighed against the security that an NFL contract can provide for your family and the rarity of the current opportunity.
“The best advice I was able to give Ahman was that at the end of the day make this your decision,” Jones said. “Because you’re the one that’s got to go through the grind and do what it takes to be successful.”
And if you decide to go, Jones said, you’d better buckle your chinstrap.
“That’s when all the agents and different sports representatives come at you — and that’s brutal,” he said. “They just chew each other up and spit each other out.”
Jones was No. 2 on the Huskers’ all-time rushing chart with 3,153 yards after the 1993 season, and still ranks No. 6 two decades later. It would have taken 1,628 yards in 1994 to unseat Rozier, compared with the 1,804 for Abdullah in 2014.
But Jones said it was never about the stats after he picked NU and Tom Osborne out of Omaha Central.
“It didn’t matter if I ever was a starter or any of that,” Jones said. “My only goal is that I just wanted to go play for Coach Osborne and run out in front of 76,000 people. I never got into numbers or records, because I felt somebody was only gonna break ’em.”
One other factor for Jones was that he had been held back a grade in elementary school and redshirted in 1990, so he was already 23 when the NFL decision came. (Abdullah turns 21 in June.) Jones also had suffered a knee injury at NU that reminded him that a running back’s longevity is uncertain.
The feedback was positive after Osborne put him in touch with the NFL advisory panel, so Jones filed the paperwork before a Jan. 10 deadline and admitted that it was with “deeply mixed feelings” that he left.
Jones missed his chance to go in the first round when Kansas City took Greg Hill at No. 25 instead. He listened as former Minnesota coach Dennis Green said the Vikings’ second-round pick came down to Jones or defensive end Fernando Smith, and they took Smith.
Then there was the predicted run on defensive players before the Raiders drafted Jones with the No. 80 pick overall.
They then signed free-agent running back Harvey Williams in the offseason and Jones had mostly a quiet two years with the Raiders. The saving grace of his one season with the Packers was the Super Bowl victory over New England in New Orleans.
“But I always tell people, I know the Super Bowl is supposed to be the pinnacle when it comes to football,” he said. “But for me — being born and raised in Nebraska and watching Husker football — it would have meant more to be part of the ’94 team.”